Who Wants a Federal Career?

December 24, 1999

Anyone who thinks January’s federal pay increase will renew interest in civil service careers is sadly mistaken. Even in an era when students are setting annual records for volunteering in their communities, a 4.8 percent salary increase can’t compensate for what talented graduates think is currently missing from federal careers. Those potential recruits are not saying “show me the money” but “show me the job.” And federal jobs just don’t show well.

All job offers being equal, the pay increase would matter. But the federal government is usually so far behind its private and nonprofit competitors in offering challenging work and the chance to advance that pay never comes into play.

Forced to prove President Clinton’s claim that the era of big government is over by holding down full-time employment, the federal government has been more interested in pushing jobs out to private contractors and nonprofit agencies than in imagining a new public service in which expertise moves more freely across the sectors.

The federal government is losing the talent war on three fronts. First, its current hiring system for recruiting talent, top to bottom, underwhelms at almost every task it undertakes. Interest in entry-level jobs is so low that two of every five new entry-level employees were previously working somewhere else in the federal government.

Second, there is no clear link between pay and performance. The federal appraisal system is so inflated that employees are not only all above average, they are well on their way to outstanding. The pass/fail systems that are spreading across government accentuate the problem. They merely reinforce the government’s reputation as soft on poor performers.

Third and most important, the federal government is so clogged with needless layers and convoluted career paths that it cannot deliver the kind of challenging work today’s labor market expects. Gone are the days when the country’s most talented students were willing to serve a decade or two before appointment to a deputy associate deputy assistant secretary post.

Unfortunately, federal careers were designed for a work force that has not existed since the 1960s—and certainly not for one that grew up in an era of corporate downsizing and mergers. The government-centered public service is mostly a thing of the past, replaced by a multi-sectored public service in which employees switch jobs and sectors with ease.

The federal government faces a simple choice: It can either troll farther and farther down the class lists for new recruits, while hoping that a tiny pay increase will help, or it can start building the kind of careers talented Americans want.

The place to start is the federal government’s hierarchy. Despite a decade of downsizing and $2 billion in voluntary buyouts, it’s still as thick as ever. By using attrition, not targeted cuts, to trim nearly 400,000 jobs from government, the Clinton administration guaranteed that the cuts would come from the bottom, where resignation rates are higher. And by refusing to eliminate jobs when their occupants left, Congress ensured that most of the buyouts would merely replace one about-to-retire employee with the subordinate next in line. The entry level is still 30 to 40 layers from the top.

Flattening is just the beginning, however. Once it closes the distance between the top and bottom, the federal government should create real competition for all its jobs. That might even mean special recruiting efforts at the middle and senior levels, including calls to students who started their public service careers in nonprofit agencies and private consulting firms. Congress should also take a second look at Vice President Gore’s proposed pay-for-performance system, particularly if he is willing to accept a cap on the number of employees who can be graded “outstanding” in any given year and an end to pass/fail appraisal systems.

It is not too early for each of the presidential candidates to commit himself to renewing government as a destination of choice for America’s most talented citizens. After all, the next president will receive a $200,000 salary increase as part of that 4.8 percent pay bill. If he truly wants to earn the money, there’s no tougher or more important job than embracing the new public service.